Canine Communication & Kid Safety

Canine Communication & Kid Safety

Zach & Brody

The first time he came to our house, my son’s friend Joey announced he hated dogs.

Given that we have a dog - and a cute one at that, a goofy Golden who loves any and all people - this is a bit of a problem. Joey was nonetheless fearful, so I had my dog in the yard for a bit. When I asked Joey why he hates dogs, he said it was because every dog he had ever met, starting with his own min pin when he was younger, bit him.

To be fair, if every dog I met bit me I might be nervous around them as well. But it’s indicative of a much bigger problem.

Joey is not a rare case. In the United States, 900,000 people a year require medical attention due to a non-fatal dog bite; half of them are children, whose small stature and lack of inhibition make them more prone to these sorts of incidences. We all hear about the tragic cases in the news of dogs killing people who were minding their own business, and it is horrifying and heartbreaking. But it is also, thankfully, rare. The vast majority of these bites are preventable.

My fellow veterinarians like to joke that we have a harder job than MDs because our patients can’t talk, but that’s not entirely true. Dogs may not speak our language, but they sure as heck communicate. It’s just that we aren’t listening properly.

If you want a perfect example of what a distressed dog looks like, just hit up your local veterinary clinic. All those picture memes of dogs going to the vet are a perfect list of all the things dogs do to broadcast when they are feeling uncomfortable …

• Hiding behind their owners
• Shaking
• Lip licking
• Yawning
• Tail tucked
• “Half moon” of the eye showing
• Turning away from you

And take growling, for example: how many times have you seen a dog get scolded for growling? We should be rewarding them! This is them shouting, loud and clear: “I am really unhappy right now. Whatever is going on here, please stop. Don’t make me escalate things.” It’s scary when you see it, especially when a dog is growling at a young child, but it is an immediate signal for you to intervene and make the situation safe.

Some signs are more subtle than others, and can be easy to miss if you don’t know how to look for them. It is extremely rare for a dog to jump right into bite mode without giving at least one or two of these signs ahead of time. We just don’t recognize it.

Time and time again, I see people - often kids - go right up to a dog exhibiting these behaviors and start patting them and talking to them. Do you remember when women in department stores used to walk up and spray you with perfume without asking first? They stopped because too many people were snapping at them. It’s kind of like that.

I imagine most people on the Life’s Abundance site know a lot more than the average bear about doggie body language, and if you have kids they probably do as well. From the time my kiddos were toddlers, we worked (and worked and worked, because it takes time) to teach them about respecting animals’ space. In some respects, kids comfortable with the family dog are even more at risk for bites, because they are used to approaching dogs who are very comfortable with being handled and may be overly familiar with strange dogs.

So we practice, and just as importantly, we make other kids practice with us too. When my dog is showing classic relaxed body posture (wiggling, leaning into people for pets), I take this as an opportunity to show kids who may have never been taught how to approach a strange dog …

1. Use your EYES to see if the dog wants to be approached
2. Use your MOUTH to ask for permission
3. Use your HAND to hold it out and let the dog approach you
4. Only then can you pat the dog, gently, on its side … not its face!

So many times when a dog bites, the owner says, “We never saw it coming!” That doesn’t mean the signs weren’t there. I’d encourage every pet parent out there to make it part of their daily life to teach those they encounter about how to approach a dog. You just might save them some trauma down the line.

As for Joey? Over time, he began to feel empowered as he understood how to evaluate dogs and when to walk away. The last time he came over, he asked to take Brody for a walk. It doesn’t take much to keep people dog safe, just a little time and effort. Are you in?

Doggie Language
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Photo by lili.chin / CC BY

How Not To Greet a Dog
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Photo by lili.chin / CC BY

Dr V Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, DVM

Dr. Jessica Vogelsang is a graduate of the prestigious UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine with experience in both emergency and general practice. Quickly recognized as an entertaining and informative voice in the pet world, Dr. V is one of the most widely read veterinarians on the web and has become a much sought-after contributor in print, television and radio. Not only that, but Dr. V is one of a small group of veterinary and journalism experts to have earned the title of Certified Veterinary Journalist through the American Society of Veterinary Journalists. Dr. V is currently featured in the series "Animals Gone Wild" on Nat Geo Wild on Friday nights at 9:00 p.m. Eastern Time.

Comments (7) -

  • Kris Leaver

    6/20/2016 11:11:36 AM |

    Whenever I start a new "R.E.A.D. dog" Session, we go over the information in the above chart on "How NOT to greet a dog...with the correct way.  Good information for everyone.  Thanks Dr. V!

  • Valori

    6/21/2016 9:04:44 AM |

    Very apt post. At a dog show I had a couple with a 3-4 yo girl in a stroller ask to see my dogs and the young girl reached up and put her hands on either side of my Borzoi bitches head and kissed her just above the dogs nose. It was an absolutely charming moment despite my dog not having any kids at home, she understood the intent and I allowed it. The parents said they had a large breed dog at home. Then I made a very big deal of educating the parents that while this moment had been wonderful it could have been a disaster and they needed to teach their lovely daughter to approach new dogs in a different manner whether in a stroller or walking on her own. Offering a closed quiet hand is a better start. With my or any other breed, a dog may feel threatened and may or not give a warning. And caution is so important when a little face is eye to eye with our dogs.

  • JoAnne

    6/21/2016 9:57:08 AM |

    Great article and charts too!  Thank you.  It would be great if this was taught in the schools by animal educators!

  • kim gardner

    6/28/2016 12:35:20 PM |

    Wonderful informative article.  I try to tell people that things normally start small and they miss them until bam its a big issue.  The dog language is wonderful to help people recognize things and hopefully take the correct measures.  Thank you for a great article and tips!!

  • Rebecca Forrest

    7/2/2016 10:04:14 AM |

    Very informative article. I’d mention one thing: If people discourage dogs from growling or punish them from other “warning” behaviors, then it is entirely possible for a dog to go from uncomfortable to biting in one step. After all, the dog has learned that all the intervening “warning” behaviors are bad.

    Thanks for all the good information.

  • Laura Babb

    7/3/2016 7:32:13 PM |

    Very informative. I wish more people would realize that the dog language gives cues to its behavior. Great article

  • Kipper

    4/5/2018 5:42:59 PM |

    Great article Dr. V! The neighbor kids have all been taught by me how to react around a  dog..don’t move fast, ask the owner before approaching the dog, be gentle and always say thank you and give the dog a biscuit((hold your hand flat, palm up,with the cookie in your palm ).  They then teach their friends. Even their classmates that the dog and I see when we go get the neighbor kids after school know the rules!  If they don’t, I step in front of my dog and they get the talk.  The dog knows I will protect her.

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